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Reviewed by:
  • Sexchanges, and: Writing a Woman's Life
  • Elizabeth Boyd Thompson
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Sexchanges. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989. Vol. of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 3 vols. 1988-. 455 pp. $29.95.
Carolyn G. Heilbrun. Writing a Woman's Life. New York: Norton, 1988. 144 pp. $14.95.

According to Carolyn Heilbrun, "No Man's Land challenges the very basis of interpretation for a whole period. The study of modernism will never be the same." I hope she is right. For although I often doubt the success of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's challenge, I certainly applaud their attempt. Sexchanges returns to many of the issues presented in The War of the Words (the first volume of the three volume series), notably "the relationship between female dreams of a powerful Herland and male fears of a debilitating no man's land" and "the discrepancy between men's hostility toward what they perceived as threatening female autonomy and women's anxiety about what they saw as the fragility or even the fictionality of such autonomy." This book also elaborates a number of themes mentioned but not treated in depth in the first volume: "the sexual imagery associated with imperialism and its decline, with the intensified consumerism of Gilded Age America, and with the opening as well as the closing of the American frontier"; "the evolution of turn-of-the-century and modernist women's revisionary mythic and religious ideas"; "the relationship of the feminist and free love movements to the female imagination"; "the emergence of a lesbian literary tradition"; and "the asymmetrical impact of the Great War on men and women."

However, the "principal focus" of the book is on "changing definitions of sex and sex roles as they evolve through three phases." Gilbert and Gubar identify these phases as: "the repudiation of the Victorian ideology of femininity that marked both feminism and fantasy during what we might call the overturning of the century; the antiutopian skepticism that characterized the thought of such writers as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather . . . ; the virtually apocalyptic engendering of the new for both literary men and literary women that was, at least in part, fostered by the fin de siècle formation of a visible lesbian community, even [End Page 867] more shockingly triggered by the traumas of World War I, and perhaps most radically shaped by an unprecedented confrontation (by both sexes) with the artifice of gender and its consequent discontents."

In spite of the emphasis on literary men and women, this book leans more toward social than literary history. And as such, the treatment of the effect of World War One on British women (Chapter Seven, "Soldier's Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War") is far and away the most interesting chapter in the book. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the absence of men in society and the economy during the war "fostered the formation of a metaphorical country not unlike the queendom Charlotte Perkins Gilman called Herland." Sharp divisions between the men on the firing line and the women in the factories were underscored by recruitment posters the subtext of which was often "duke et decorum est, pro matria mori," and the aftermath of the war that had done so much to further women's liberation found women facing a backlash of misogyny, evoked by the nightmare of the trenches.

This is a better book than War of the Words in a number of ways. The theoretical basis is still shaky, based on too many unexamined assumptions, but the style is clearer, and the puns and self-conscious word play are under better control, and consequently more effective. With such an all-encompassing agenda, it is little wonder that Gilbert and Gubar often merely skim the surface. Overall, it is an inconsistent work in which flashes of brilliance alternate with flabby overstatement and flimsy generalizations. In spite of its flaws, it is a good read, especially for those interested in social history.

In some ways Writing a Woman's Life complements Sexchanges; in others it far surpasses the weightier, more pretentious tome...


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